By Charles Boothe

A pilot program requiring drug screenings for public assistance applicants will soon start in West Virginia.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed off on the proposal Wednesday, paving the way for the statewide, three-year testing program.

Once the program is approved by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and initiated, anyone applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will be screened.

That screening requires a series of questions that determine if there is a "reasonable suspicion" of drug use, a determination made by a caseworker.

If so, the applicant will then be tested and, if drug use is found, substance abuse treatment will be required, including counseling and job skills programs. Subsequent failures result in temporary and then permanent bans on assistance for that individual.

State Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer) supports the legislation.

"We passed the legislation and I think it's a good thing," he said Wednesday evening. "But it is not punitive. It will help people who need help ... giving them an opportunity to receive help."

Cole also said the children in the family will receive help regardless of the outcome of the drug screenings and tests.

"We will direct the benefits to make sure that they are going to who needs them," he said, adding that the person who is using drugs should be taken out of the picture and any money they would have received would most likely have been used to support the drug habit.

"This is not a punitive program," he said. "It just identifies those who need help and then gives them help."

Del. Marty Gearheart has been a proponent of the bill as well.

"I think it's a step in the right direction as far as dealing with the drug problem," he said after the governor signed the bill.  "It does still provide for the children, and that's a win-win."

Gearheart had earlier praised Del. John Shott and Del. Dr. Joe Ellington for their work on the bill, and said what is best for the children is at the heart of the program.

"Children are a big part of the bill and that is the major concern," he said. "It is fair and compassionate. It really benefits no one if the public is putting money into drug abuse."

At least 13 states have public assistance drug testing.

Even when it is approved on the federal level and then implemented, it would still be a pilot program with a three-year window of approval, Gearheart said.

(c)2016 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)